Daniel Quinn's book If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways is a short read, but it's not necessarily an easy one to digest, and it leaves more challenges and questions on the table than it takes off. But for anyone interested in having effective engagement with fellow humans about how to make the world a better place, I definitely recommend having it in your toolbox.
Quinn, who I've mentioned here a few times, is an author who has spent much of his life writing books that try to show readers a different way of looking at the world and the story we tell ourselves about how the world works. In Write Sideways, Quinn essentially tries to answer the question, "once you have seen the world from a different perspective, how do you help other people see that same new perspective in a way that's meaningful and lasting for them?"
As a man who often puts himself in the role of a teacher, Quinn also seems to be ever in pursuit of ways to explain his methods and process, perhaps in the name of passing on the practice of opening eyes and changing minds (his approach to world changing). But as he tells in Write Sideways, he seems to have some difficulty doing so effectively, at least based on the wild and strange questions he gets from his readers. This is not the first time he's told his own story in an attempt to provide some context and background to his approach; in Providence: The Story of a Fifty Year Vision Quest, he recounts his life leading up to the publication of Ishmael, his most famous and impacting work. I was worried that Write Sideways would be a recycling of that information or of other parts of his writings, but despite some re-hashing of parts of the Ishmael novels, I would say it's a self-contained and fresh take. (It's not necessary to have read his other books, but you'll get more out of it if you have.)
The book is structured as a conversation between Quinn and one of his readers, Elaine, who visits him for a few days in his home. It's essentially a slightly edited transcript of the conversation, and so it reads quickly, as though we are sitting in on the conversation, turning our heads back and forth between Quinn and his guest. I thought one of the key points in the book came early on, when Quinn admitted that while he's always avoided looking at himself as anyone special, he's come to accept that he has a unique frame of reference on the world, and that getting to that frame of reference is a kind of skill and wisdom in itself. From there, Quinn guides Elaine through challenges and exchanges that attempt to help her do the same, often with questions from readers as exercises.
Each time I have encountered Daniel Quinn, he has always inspired me. At first it was Ishmael and his other earlier books that inspired me to look at the world in a different way, and to find other people who were doing the same. Since then, when I've met him, talked to him on the phone or heard him speak to groups, it's been his process and approach so some of the world's most vexing problems that have inspired me, as someone who seeks to do some eye-opening and mind-changing in my own life and work.
I'm not sure anyone will ever be able to truly replicate what Quinn does, but as I'm sure he would say, it's not really about him, it's about finding new ways for humanity to live that are sustainable. To that end, Write Sideways is a helpful contribution from someone who's been pioneering those efforts in his own special way for quite some time.